Posted on August 11, 2008

Selective Social Scene

Shannon Proudfoot, Canwest News Service, August 11, 2008

Yellow horse-crossing signs along the roadside signal you’re nearing Langley, B. C.’s most unique neighbourhood—an upscale development that’s among the players in Canada’s burgeoning equestrian real estate market.

More than half of the 164 lots at High Point Equestrian Estates have been sold—they start at $620,000 for a half-acre—and 17 houses are already under construction in the community that is 45 minutes from downtown Vancouver. Residents of the larger properties will keep their horses in their backyards, while those on smaller lots will board theirs at an equestrian centre complete with clubhouse, riding rings and paddocks.

“One of our mantras is to build homes for people so that your neighbours are like-minded,” says Hani Lammam, vice-president of Cressey Development Group.

“At the end of the day, homes are a commodity and one home is not that different from another; there’s only so much you can do to differentiate the product,” he says. “We don’t want to be competing on price, so we had to bring something a little extra to the table.”

At least three other equestrianthemed developments are in the works elsewhere in B. C. and around Toronto.

The desire for like-minded living is driving the niche housing market across the country and beyond, as communities crop up to cater to people who want to live among others who share their interests, outlook or lifestyle—often with a premium price tag. Chris Erb, president of the Canadian Home Builders’ Association of British Columbia and owner of Nanaimo-based SupErb Construction, says the industry is responding to well-off baby boomers who know what they want and are willing to pay for it.

“They’re much more educated as to what they’re purchasing, and I do think a lot of them out there want stuff that’s different,” he says. “The people that want the stuff that’s different, they have the money to back it up.”

Oenophiles will soon be able to live next to the vines in condos and townhouses planned for Greata Ranch Vineyard Estates in B. C.’s Okanagan Valley, while retired artists live among their own creative kind at Toronto’s Performing Arts Lodges. In Okotoks, Alta., the 52 eco-conscious households of the Drake Landing Solar Community heat their water and homes with solar thermal energy and gather for an annual block party on the summer solstice.

Cohousing is another small but growing slice of niche living in Canada, combining individual homes or apartments with a central courtyard and common house where neighbours gather to share meals, watch over each other’s children and socialize.

Elsewhere, the suburbs of San Francisco, Calif., are home to the Village at Hiddenbrooke, a planned community inspired by the bucolic cottages and sugary tones of Thomas Kinkade’s mass-market artwork, while Summertown, Tenn., hosts a hippie retirement community named for Don Quixote’s horse, Rocinante. The town of Celebration, Fla.—just down the road from Disney’s Magic Kingdom—is home to 9,000 residents who worship at the altar of old-fashioned Americana, complete with front porch socializing, lakefront concerts and stars-and-stripes bunting.

“Really, it’s about people [who] share common lifestyle values and have common interests,” says Dean Malone, president and CEO of Plum Living, which has partnered with a New Mexico company in planning what they say will be Canada’s first retirement community for gays and lesbians in Vancouver.

They’re currently searching for a parcel of land for RainbowVision Vancouver, which will include at least 125 independent condos and 25 assisted-living spaces. The facility will support retirement living, but the 47 people from across the country who have already plunked down $1,000 deposits range in age from age 44 to 81.

What they share, Malone says, is a desire to be part of the majority instead of the minority.

“There’s greater acknowledgment that as we grow older, we often draw back and want to be with people who have shared a similar life experience,” he says. “No one wants to have to be one of a kind within a larger group.”

B. C. seems to be a hotbed of niche housing in Canada—something Erb chalks up to a lack of snow.

“If you retire from ‘Winterpeg,’ you’re probably not going to stay there,” he says, laughing. “I think the climate’s an absolute huge, huge factor.”

The Canadian Cohousing Network counts eight existing communities—six of them in B. C.—encompassing about 175 homes, with another eight communities in various stages of development across the country.

“I’ve lived in neighbourhoods where it’s car-grass-house, car-grass-house, and everybody drives into their garage and nobody talks to anybody. I’ve gotten rather tired of that,” says Cam Farnell, one of the planners and future residents of Chaswood Cohousing in Nova Scotia. “Finding somewhere where people are actively looking to be involved with each other is very appealing at this stage.”

Farnell and his wife plan to join their daughter, son-in-law and six-month-old grandchild in the 20-household community, which should break ground this fall in a rural area midway between Halifax and Truro.

On the other side of the country, there are 100 people on a waiting list for one of the 22 homes at Cranberry Commons in Burnaby, B. C. Demand is similar in other cohousing neighbourhoods, says Ronaye Matthew, president of Cohousing Development Consulting and a resident of the Burnaby community, which opened in 2001.

“People are starting to realize that suburbia can’t fulfill their needs for community connection,” she says.

Cohousing tends to arise organically from the efforts of the people who want to live there. But Richard Florida, author of Who’s Your City? and a professor of business and creativity at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, sees a dark side to developer-driven residential organization.

“What the developers are on to is that people are sorting themselves by their interests,” he says. “What we’re seeing now is this very, very homogeneous sorting that worries me.”

Florida fears that this community categorization could extinguish the vibrancy of cities where different types of people share the same neighbourhoods.

“I don’t want to live around people just like me,” he says. “That’s a terrible loss if you do that, to yourself and to the society.”

But for future High Point resident Bob Maddocks, vice-president of a company that provides software for the trucking industry, the equestrian development’s selectivity is part of the draw.

It offers an incredible view, enough property to keep horses, city water service and assurance that “a kind of Sanford and Son used car lot” won’t take up residence next door.

“When you’re out in rural property, you don’t know who’s next to you,” he says.

By Christmas, Maddocks hopes his family will be settled in their new 13,000-square-foot house, perched on a ridge with a view of the riding trails below and the distant ocean on a clear day.

“The whole lifestyle here is what we’re dreaming about,” says Maddocks. “We drove up and fell in love the first day.”